Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Do Increases in Attendance Mean That Much?

If you read about the WNBA Finals - both on message boards and in the regular press - there's a lot of hype as to how well attended these finals are. The Indiana Fever have been drawing crowds - real crowds, not just giveaway seats - in excess of 15,000. This is seen as a good sign for the WNBA.

And yet, Malcolm Wells over at Swish Appeal points out that well attended finals matches rarely translate into long-term success:

Indeed, attendance has been flat across the league since 2004 at an average of 8000 fans per game, down from the early highs of 10,000 at the WNBA's early peaks. Winning a title in this league doesn't even guarantee greater turnouts. Whereas the Phoenix Mercury have seen a 10% attendance boost since winning their title in 2007, the Detriot Shock have lost 20% of its per game attendance this season despite winning titles in 2006 and 2008. Even a sellout crowd of the magnitude that has shown up for Game 3 need not mean that the WNBA is approaching primetime - Sunday's game is only the fifth largest sellout in the five year history of the WNBA Finals. Those other four sellouts have not translated into sizable attendance gains.

I'm sure that I can get from someone a list of the best-attended WNBA games. It would interesting to draw a chart to see if there's a correlation between high single-game attendance and an increase in overall attendance - but I'm going to agree with Wells that there probably isn't one. We had 10,000 + fans at Philips Arena attend the Dream/Sparks game - many of them bused to Philips from Tennessee courtesy of one Pat Summitt. However, that uptick in attendance didn't translate in the long run to fannies in seats.

Wells also writes about the increase in demographics from ESPN2, which can be found at WNBA.com:


The WNBA regular season on ESPN2 concluded with an average of 269,000 viewers, up 8% versus last season (248,000 viewers).
Regular season games on ESPN2 saw increases in key demographics including men 18-34 (+9%), men 18-49 (+14%), men 23-54 (+23%).

As Wells writes, without the base numbers, it doesn't mean much of anything but we do know that overall numbers are up eight percent. However, WNBA.com didn't report similiar increases among women. This leaves the possibility that if the WNBA breaks through and becomes a thriving league, it might be carried on the backs of male viewers. This would be a paradoxical development as the WNBA was predicated to being not just a women's sport, but a sport for women, a sport that would bridge women who had never traditionally been interested in sports into becoming active, enthusiastic sports fans. (And who would hopefully become NBA fans - Stern is one smart puppy.)

It makes one wonder how coverage of the sport - and how the issues of sport and gender - would change if a greater percentage of the WNBA fanbase was made up of male fans.

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